Standing up for conservatism in Queensland

Mark Bahnisch, Queensland: Everything you ever wanted to know, but were afraid to ask, Sydney, NewSouth Publishing, 2015

Sean Jacobs

It’s healthy, regardless of political complexion, to read well-written books threading history with current affairs. Mark Bahnisch’s Queensland: Everything you ever wanted to know, but were afraid to ask performs this task brilliantly.

Bahnisch shows that Queensland, known for its conservatism, actually lays claim in 1899 to the first Labour government in the world and, in addition to hosting the world’s first general strike in 1912, pioneered a “path to socialism through intervention in the economy.” It’s through this lens that Queensland’s contrasts take shape: the free trade without big business; shearers, miners and railway workers upon the northern frontiers with doctors, lawyers and professionals cresting the Tweed border; the Catholic versus Anglican-Presbyterian split in the legal profession; the rise of One Nation; and, of course, Queensland’s unicameral house.

Bahnisch, with a professed attachment to the Australian Labor Party (ALP), also lends an academic but accessible insight into the ALP split forming Vince Gair’s Queensland Labor Party in the 1950s, the Rudd-Goss-Swan troika of the late 1980s and a small mural of Peter Beattie painting him as “the best politician (at least at state level) Australia has seen in the last few decades.” Politics aside, it’s rare to be given such readable depth to the political, economic and social forces that have shaped Queensland.

Bahnisch’s political sympathies, however, expose a number of predictable points familiar to a conservative or centre-right audience – the inevitable ‘Joh bashing’, the mocking of strict public decency laws, the desire for more lawmakers, the mistaking of symbolism for progress and, perhaps most notable, the incapacity to understand the nuances to conservative positions on issues like race, immigration and economics.

I have written elsewhere about the strained and, in my view, unkind legacy of the late Premier Joh Bjelke-Petersen. Having gone to university and high school in South East Queensland, long after his nineteen year reign as Premier, I recall the mere mention of his name would still draw howls of disapproval and laughter from lecturers, teachers and students. Criticisms of his deep religious faith would often emerge alongside charges that he was intensely corrupt and a mostly wicked man.

Less discussed, however, are Bjelke-Petersen’s overall political legacy, elevating him to one of the most successful politicians in Australian history, his hardscrabble beginnings and early commercial success, or the ‘open roads’ reforms that, with lower taxes, helped dismantle unions and push the state economy into high gear.

Instead Bahnisch, like so many others today, suggest gerrymandering and closed-mindedness as the reasons for his sustained success. Bahnisch, as a young student activist on 4ZZZ student radio, often enjoyed needling the “folksy but tongue-tied” Premier. “The premier’s home number was on speed dial,” Bahnisch reflects. “Joh would always answer, never too busy to have a spray at students, communists, the Labor Party, all his enemies, always the same enemies.”

Queensland’s public decency laws also present easy targets from the past. The Gaming, Vagrancy and Other Offences Act 1936, Bahnisch writes, “allowed anyone to be detained on almost any excuse at any time… Publicans could legally refuse service to anyone they considered a ‘pervert’, a measure largely targeted at gay men, but flexible enough to encompass anyone different. Books, movies and plays were censored, and it wasn’t unknown for cops to shut down gigs.”

While social attitudes and legislation have relaxed considerably since the 1960s and 1970s, Bahnisch rapidly moves past the link between lower public standards and social decline – a trend found not just in Queensland but common in other states and countries. A walk through Fortitude Valley or Brisbane’s CBD on a Saturday night, as many Queenslanders know, presents an unprecedented exposure to drunkenness and opportunities for assault. In New South Wales the social anxieties are the same. “The chances of receiving a rum and coke-fuelled headbutt,” observes the Menzies Research Centre’s Nick Cater, “are considerably greater since the offence of being drunk and disorderly was removed from the statute in 1979.”

In fact, by looking more widely at crime, we see the harmful consequences of trying to deal with ‘root causes’ such as inequality or injustice at the expense of applying the rule of the law. Indeed, the social unravelling experienced by most Western democracies over the past half-century has shown that increased leniency, paired with an expanding welfare state and feelings of entitlement, does little to reduce crime. “As the rates of imprisonment declined [in the 1960s],” reflects the American economist Thomas Sowell, “crime rates soared – whether in England, Australia, New Zealand or the United States.”

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